Penny Reeder, the former editor of “The Braille Forum,” the monthly magazine of the American Council of the Blind, now writes for the abledbody blog. As a consumer and advocate who is blind, Reeder shared her thoughts about the 21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act that President Obama will sign into law today at 2 p.m. ET the White House, and can be watched live.
Q: Penny, the new law is going to help make mobile devices more accessible for people who are blind and visually impaired, but as you mentioned in your article, you still think the Federal Communications Commission needs to hear from the blind community. What are the issues at hand?
A: We still don’t have options for accessible smartphones outside of the iPhone. I’m a Verizon customer, and I cant find a smartphone that’s accessible to me unless I pay hundreds of dollars for a screen reader that works with it, plus the cost of the data plan. People who are blind need speech output for their phones, we need buttons that we can readily distinguish so we can even go online to watch mobile web content that this law covers. It starts with the device, not the content. Our lack of access puts us at a disadvantage, and its important that the FCC understands this so they can persuade the manufacturers to build accessibility into their products going forward.
Q: What’s your take on the Senate version of the bill reducing the amount of required video-description programming from seven hours a week to four? Is that enough?
A: It was the easy way out for the Senate, and those of us in the blindness community were so thrilled to get even that limited amount of video description. Back in 2002, the National Association of Broadcasters sued when we tried to get that amount of video description on television programming, the appeals court backed them and we lost. Gradually, over a period of 10 years, the amount of video description will increase under the new law, and as more broadcasters are forced to do it, it will become more of a standard operating practice for everyone.
Q: So the broadcasters said they couldn’t take on the expense of having to add video descriptions for the blind?
A: Yes, and they were partly assisted by the National Federation of the Blind, which told the courts that wanting access to anything but emergency announcements was just a shallow demand from the blind community. The NFB also opposed a recent ACB lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury to make paper currency accessible to people who are blind. They actually testified for the Bush Treasury Department and against adding accessibility to paper currency. But we won — though we’re still waiting for it to happen.
Q: What parts about the new law excite you?
A: One of the best provisions in the legislation is forcing set-top box manufacturers and other equipment providers to make their products accessible for people who can’t see. It was so non-intuitive and complicated to even [figure out how to turn on and use] the video descriptions during those two years when we had it. Lots of people used their VCRs to somehow pass through the descriptions. I seem to remember that it was only Zenith VCRs that would do it. We bought a TV that had a separate button for the secondary audio program (SAP) channel about a month or two before the court decided the FCC didn’t have authority to require video description.
Q: Sometimes people with disabilities will take what they can get, right?
A: Yes, I remember that one of my good friends, who had worked so hard to get video description rules promulgated by the FCC in 2000, was so excited about the availability of even four hours of video description, he watched everything that he could find with description. He would e-mail me and say, “I just finished watching Clifford, the Big Red Dog! Man was it great!”
Q: Do you watch TV these days?
A: No, I hardly ever watch TV anymore. Unless it’s the Food Network, which I can usually follow. When I do watch a show, I invite other family members to watch so they can help me follow it — and, sadly, most of the time, I just don’t think the programming is worth the effort! We did all watch Treme earlier this year, and for a while we were addicted to Breaking Bad, neither of which were described, and neither of which I could have followed without my son’s in-person video description.